Having posted my My 50 Favorite Songs of 2016 before Christmas, I thought I would round things off with my ten favourite albums of the year too. This list was also posted on the Talkhouse today, as I am honoured to be one of their guest contributors for their own end-of-year round-up.
Michael Nau - Mowing
Fans of unsung, lazy, faded gems such as Assateague’s Good Morning Blues or Gold Leaves’ The Ornament will surely be spinning Michael Nau’s Mowing as I write this. I love this album. The effect on me was as if a good friend had sent me a bunch of unexpected demos and they turned out to be amazing: touching, accomplished, wise and knowing, yet also admirably loose and off the cuff.
Brigid Mae Power - Brigid Mae Power
I saw Brigid Mae Power in December playing solo at a small cafe in London in front of fifty people. The effect of her performance was the same as on the record I have been playing all year: droning, woozy, unresolved piano and open-tuned guitar chords hung like a mist, the pace solemn — almost ceremonial — while above it all her voice climbed and swooped through the scales as if slightly time-sped down a few notches. The lyrics are often startling and affecting, moments from a dream, insights into people close to her, articulations of her own hopes and desires. Part unsettling, part transcendent. To me, great.
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
An effortless, confident kaleidoscope of freshly turned soul, funk and hip-hop. This is a seriously impressive album, as if Dr. Dre, Stevie Wonder and Prince had dreamed up a potential heir. Aside from the funk, there is a tenderness and sincerity to many of the lyrics that is very winning: stark reflections on growing up, the struggle to resist peer pressure and expectations, open-hearted declamations of love. The uplift of the closing track “The Dreamer” makes you want to go back to the beginning and start again.
Choir Boy - Passive with Desire
Shot through with the melancholic ’80s synth pop tropes of, say, “African and White” by China Crisis or “Almost”-era Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, there is a shimmering, Gothic quality to this album that unashamedly takes me back thirty-five years. Adam Klopp’s starlit vocals are gorgeous: romantic yet resilient; bringing to mind such great alt-crooners of the past as David Sylvian or modern incarnations like ANOHNI or Gem Club’s Christopher Barnes.
Karl Blau - Introducing Karl Blau
Hats off to producer Tucker Martine and Karl Blau for this high-concept project of alt-country covers of songs from the ’60s and ’70s. Martine — best known for his modern productions for bands including the Decemberists and My Morning Jacket — is the son of Grammy-nominated country songwriter, Layng Martine, Jr. and comes with a notebook full of overlooked country classics he heard growing up that he has always wanted to record. Blau is a prolific lo-fi experimentalist from the Pacific Northwest with a previously barely noticed baritone voice of great beauty and warmth. The result is a win-win. Their ten-minute version of Link Wray’s “Fallin’ Rain” is hands-down my fave recording of the year.
Little Scream - Cult Following
It is a testimony to Laurel Sprengelmeyer, a.k.a. Little Scream, that she can invite guests of the caliber of Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten and Mary Margaret O’Hara onto her second album and still make it so clearly her own. Confidently produced with Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, it moves from impudent pushy art-pop to affecting translucent gems including “Wishing Well” and “Wreckage” without missing a stroke. First class.
Solange - A Seat at the Table
Much has been made of the politics on show, but it is still easy to be swept away by the lush, sweet R&B beauty of this record. Solange’s light, unshowy voice does not assert itself; rather it floats, chiffony and sheer, over the bone-hard beats — either alone or in impressive stacked harmony. The arrangements are the definition of future-retro: both killingly familiar in their echoes of the jazz-soul innovations of the ’70s, yet modern in their sparse density. (It is not a surprise to see Questlove and Raphael Saadiq in the production credits.) Yet, as if from a dream, you are constantly jolted awake by the sharp, bittersweet political commentary and personal, female-centric feeling in the lyrics and interludes. And as Solange’s vocal lists the ways and ways she tried to makes things better in “Cranes in the Sky,” you can’t help but be moved. Killing us softly with her song.
Danny Paul Grody - Sketch for Winter VI: Other States
It is the unadorned beauty of “On Leaving” and “Western Skies” that is the front door to this instrumental album by San Francisco experimental guitarist Danny Paul Grody. Coming across like a blend of Trainsong-era Michael Chapman and Elmer Bernstein’s score for Hud, they roll at you like tumbleweed, dusty and beautiful. The album is book-ended by two long, glacial synthesized tracks, the opener intercut with Grody’s guitar as if forcing a human presence into the album, the closer left to simply drift with no sign of Grody at all. Try this record on an early morning walk.
Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like a Levee
I have followed MC Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger project since his vinyl-only second album in 2010, Bad Debt — a stark acoustic session recorded onto cassette at his kitchen table. Drawn by the reedy yearning in his voice and the spiritual unease in his lyrics, I finally asked him, as a fan, to sing with me last year when I was making my own recent album, Fever Dream. Like me, he has journeyed some distance as a musician, and in various guises, which helped develop a great kinship as we put together the vocals for the title track and exchanged emails. Recently I saw him and his band play in London to a full room as part of the tour for their excellent Heart Like a Levee album. The low-slung boogie of their Southern country-rock had been finely honed by weeks on the road into a night of irresistible mid-tempo grooves. The sound is something of a throwback, but in Taylor’s hands it also feels alive and evergreen, soulful and totally sincere.
Moomin - A Minor Thought
Smallville Records began as a small independent record store in 2005, a hangout for fans of electronic music in Hamburg. Releasing its own stuff seemed the next natural step. There is an engaging primitivism to the way they often approach their house music, and yet it is always underpinned by super-deep grooves. This album by Moomin seems so perfect for the label: knowingly retro, modest unaffected arrangements, cute jazz samples, sparse, warm and twinkling. A captivating listen.